What to Ask When Starting Treatment for Head and Neck Cancer

What to ask your cancer care team about your treatment options, the potential risks and benefits, and follow-up care.

Good communication helps your healthcare team understand your needs, provide you with the best possible care, and guide you to the treatment options that are best for you.

One of the most overwhelming aspects of living with head and neck cancer can be making treatment decisions. Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy are all used in the treatment of head and neck cancers. In many cases, a treatment plan will include a combination of different therapies.

It’s also important to understand that there is no treatment that is right for every person, and there are many factors to consider. While your healthcare team is there to guide you, you’ll want to have a good understanding of why specific treatment options are being recommended, how those therapies work, the risks and benefits of each, potential side effects, and what recovery from treatment will be like.

Here are some essential questions to ask.

What is the goal of the treatment?
Discuss the goal of the recommended treatment plan with your healthcare team. Is the primary aim to cure the cancer, control its growth, relieve symptoms, or improve quality of life? Understanding the treatment goal will help you set realistic expectations and make informed decisions.

What are the potential side effects?
Treatment for head and neck cancer can have side effects. Side effects can vary depending on the type of treatment. It’s essential to understand the potential side effects of each treatment option. Ask your healthcare team about short-term side effects as well as the risk of long-term side effects, late side effects, and complications. Also ask how side effects can be managed. Knowing what to expect can help you prepare for and cope with the side effects that you may experience during treatment.

How will treatment affect my quality of life?
Head and neck cancer and some treatments for head and neck cancer can impact a person’s ability to eat, swallow, and speak. Discuss with your healthcare team how a specific treatment might affect these aspects of your life and what adjustments may be necessary if you use that treatment. Also discuss any rehabilitation that you may need during and after treatment, such as speech therapy, swallowing therapy, and nutritional counseling.

Financial stress is another important factor to consider. Ask about the cost of treatment. Talk to an oncology social worker or patient navigator about the potential financial burden of treatment and if there are ways to reduce the cost.

How will treatment response be monitored?
Knowing what comes after treatment can be very helpful when making treatment decisions. Follow-up appointments and tests may be needed to monitor your progress and detect any potential recurrence or side effects. Ask your healthcare team about the frequency of follow-up visits, the types of tests or imaging studies that will be performed, and how the results will be communicated to you. If you are discussing surgery, ask about the need for reconstructive procedures. Also ask about what treatment options you can consider if the cancer returns.

Remember, you are an essential member of your healthcare team. Effective communication with your healthcare providers is key during every step of treatment for head and neck cancer. Don't hesitate to ask questions, ask for explanations, and voice any concerns you may have. Good communication helps your healthcare team understand your needs, provide you with the best possible care, and guide you to the treatment options that are best for you.

Article sources open article sources

National Cancer Institute. Head and Neck Cancers.
University of Rochester Medical Center. Head and Neck Cancer: Treatment Choices.
MacMillan Cancer Support. Late effects of head and neck cancer treatment.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Swallowing Problems From Head and Neck Cancer Treatment.
Nicole M. Mott, Michelle L. Mierzwa, et al. Financial Hardship in Patients With Head and Neck Cancer. JCO Oncology Practice, 2022. Vol. 18, No. 6.
American Cancer Society. Programs and Resources to Help With Cancer-related Expenses.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Reconstruction for Head and Neck Cancer.

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